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What Type of Partners Do Psychopaths and Narcissists Seek?

The relationships of people with Dark Triad personality traits are examined.

Key points

  • A theory of human mating preferences, called positive assortment, suggests people are drawn to those similar to them.
  • People with Dark Triad traits (narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) choose to mate with similar others (with important exceptions).
  • Psychopaths are highly interested in having one-night stands, regardless of the one-night stand partner’s personality.
New Africa/Shutterstock
Source: New Africa/Shutterstock

One prominent theory of mating preferences, called positive assortment, argues humans prefer to mate with similar others—e.g., in terms of age, education, intelligence, religious beliefs, political orientation, values, personality traits, and habits. For instance, some research on newlywed couples has found they tend to have “very strong” similarities in age, political orientation, and religiosity.

Does positive assortative mating also apply to maladaptive and aversive personality traits (e.g., narcissism)? That is what C. S. Kay, of the University of Oregon, attempted to answer. The study, published in the April issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, examines the relationship preferences of those high in psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.

Before summarizing the investigation’s methods and results, I provide a brief review of the Dark Triad.

The Dark Triad

The Dark Triad, sometimes called the Dark Tetrad (with the addition of sadism), consists of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. These personality traits, which are usually considered malevolent and socially aversive, are described below.

Narcissists have a great need for admiration and believe they are very special. Narcissists feel entitled, lack empathy, are frequently envious of others (and believe others envy them), and crave high status and power.

Psychopaths, like narcissists, tend to manipulate and exploit others. However, compared to narcissists, psychopaths are typically more callous and ruthless. They are dangerous opportunists who lack guilt and remorse. Psychopaths can be quite impulsive and aggressive, sometimes committing very violent crimes (e.g., rape, murder). Nevertheless, many succeed at concealing their dark side. These psychopaths might come across as likable, confident, charming, and charismatic. Psychopaths are also captivating storytellers. Some research suggests there are ways to identify psychopaths based on their communication pattern.

Machiavellians (named after Niccolò Machiavelli), like psychopaths, are manipulative, act dishonestly, and often lack guilt or remorse. However, unlike psychopaths and their tendency to be aggressive and lack realistic long-term goals, individuals high in Machiavellianism are cautious long-term strategists.

Machiavellians express no concern for morals and ethics when pursuing their selfish goals. So, though not necessarily immoral, they are amoral. Specifically, the tendencies associated with Machiavelli’s philosophy promote “antisocial methods of goal attainment,” plus “greed and selfishness, which are justified through rationalizations surrounding expediency and bottom-line goals.”

Relationships of the Dark Triad

Let us now review Kay’s two investigations, which examined the mating preferences of people with Dark Triad personality traits (individuals high in psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism).

The first study’s sample included 470 undergraduates (65% women; average age of 20 years). Two measures were used, as described below.

Self-report Dark Triad: The Short Dark Triad scale (using 12 items) evaluated narcissism (“People see me as a natural leader”), psychopathy (“People often say I’m out of control”), and Machiavellianism (“You should wait for the right time to get back at people”).

The Dark Triad in relationship contexts: For this assessment, the above scale was modified for evaluating participants’ willingness to date, get married to, and have one-night stands with individuals high in psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. For instance, a sample item was, “I would be willing to marry someone who ... enjoys having sex with people they hardly know.”

The second study attempted to replicate the findings of the first. Participants were 463 students (72% women; average age of 20 years). The major difference here was the use of the full version (27 items, instead of 12) of the Short Dark Triad scale.

Mating Preferences of Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Machiavellians

Analysis of data revealed three patterns:

1. "Those high in each of the Dark Triad traits seem to be more willing to engage in relationships with people who are high in the same traits.” There were exceptions to this, particularly concerning the desire to have one-night stands, but only in narcissistic women/men and in Machiavellian men (and observed in just one study). It is likely, the author believes, that controlling for psychopathy would have removed these associations, given the link between psychopathy and desire for one-night stands (see the third point, below).

2. Individuals “scoring high in narcissism (and, potentially, Machiavellianism) seem to place a greater emphasis on those same traits when it comes to long-term relationships [i.e., dating or marriage, as opposed to one-night stands].” This agrees with previous research: Compared to the normal population, individuals who believe they possess aversive personality traits are more likely to tolerate and accept—not necessarily love or even like—the same personality traits in others, particularly when interested in forming long-term relationships (as opposed to short-term relationships).

3. Psychopaths are eager to have one-night stands with those high in any of the Dark Triad personality traits. This is not surprising because psychopaths are opportunists. As the author notes, previous research has found psychopathy is linked with “having more past sexual partners,” engaging “in more acts of infidelity,” “being more interested in sex generally,” and a “greater preference for booty-call relationships.”

In summary, the results of the studies reviewed here are generally consistent with the theory of positive assortative mating, which argues people prefer to mate with similar others. There were exceptions, of course, such as individuals high in psychopathy being interested in one-night stands regardless of the personality traits of the potential partner.

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